Economist Robert Reich explains why Bernie skeptics need not doubt the Senator. Here Reich provides responses to the top six objections to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and he does so in just three minutes. (Video posted by YouTube channel “Bernie Sanders For President.”)
John Edgar Wideman’s “Fatheralong” can be remembered as a relatively brief essay that dissects American racism in its most ominous form: willful ignorance and passive complicity. Wideman profiles the father of Emmett Till, the black fourteen-year-old whose racially motivated murder garnered additional impetus for the civil rights movement. The author’s arguments are driven by bold anecdotes—some public, others personal—and careful research. Overall, “Fatheralong” is compelling, though arguably flawed.
Wideman’s word choice is essentially telling. In other words, the essay moves from beginning to close with carefully selected words that ground the reader in the essay’s mood. For example, the government’s negative connections to Louis Till’s execution is described in the following passage, which states, “Although Mrs. Till was assisted by a lawyer, her attempt to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of her husband and the father of her only child had been stymied by the government’s terminal unresponsiveness, the very same government that ordered its colored soldiers to serve in what amounted to a separate, second-class army of conscripted laborers.” (p. 348). Note the term “stymied,” which carries tremendously negative connotations in this context, as well as the phrase “terminal unresponsiveness,” an outright effort to take the government to task. Skillfully, Wideman transitions to the more familiar case of Emmett Till by weaving in the government’s involvement in this case—again described with contempt. “The government that at its highest levels chose to break its own rules and violate the rights of Private Louis Till by sending his confidential service record . . . to lawyers defending the kidnappers and killers of his son Emmett.” (p. 348). Considering the essay’s focus on systemic issues concerning race, Wideman’s incorporation of the government’s roles in either scenario must be acknowledged. Effective word choice in these examples plays a huge part in setting the tone for the essay.
“Fatheralong” should also be praised for the research completed in the making of this personal essay. In general, this genre of essay—personal essay—seems to detach itself from formal research, relying more on personal experience and internal reflection. Wideman’s piece, however, is a worthwhile example of a personal essay that goes above and beyond, one that summons external resources in addition to internal factors that so often epitomize the personal essay. With that said, two personal statements in the essay seem uncharacteristically ambiguous. First, Wideman conveys Emmett’s date of birth before including a parenthetical detail, saying the date is “a month after [the author] was born.” (p. 349). He continues by comparing his own father with Louis Till, mentioning again via parentheticals that his father joined the war in 1942, just like Louis (p. 350). These personal assertions are never directly addressed; however, we might infer that Wideman’s point is to challenge the fate of Emmett Till, who evidently belonged to the same era in American history as the author and, perhaps more importantly, also lacked a father. Yet, in an essay that endorses the idea that race is a social construct and “whiteness” has relentlessly dominated other races, Wideman’s comparison between two black individuals (Emmett Till and himself) seems fairly incomplete. While minor, I would criticize the absence of elaboration in this essay where this parallel is concerned. In other words, I would have liked the author to either have completely built the comparison between himself and Emmett or to have avoided it completely.
Wideman, John Edgar. “Fatheralong.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 347-352. Print.
Garret Keizer’s “Loaded,” a political personal essay that lobbies for the Second Amendment, exudes cynical, anecdotal elements combined with sardonic humor. While at first the liberal reader prepares for a haughty essay designed to offend, (enter the term “Islamo-facists” in the essay’s opening sentence) Keizer manages at least a few credible points in favor of gun ownership. Interestingly, some people may be reluctant to acknowledge the similarities between Keizer’s pro-gun essay and civil rights’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the twentieth century’s most iconic revolutionaries. Dr. King is rightfully remembered as a proponent of peace; however, he was not apathetic to violence and knew better than to dismiss force. Just weeks before his assassination, Dr. King was quoted as having said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” (This quote is derived from Dr. King’s speech christened “The Other America” and is seldom recited by white people when the topic of race inequity encroaches mainstream conversation.)
Keizer may seem to boast a different agenda than the one supported by Dr. King—we might reach this conclusion if we consider that the revolutionary advocated for nonviolence, Keizer a symbol of violence—but “Loaded” articulates a message noticeably similar to the message conveyed by Dr. King in “The Other America.” For example, Keizer writes that “when the rules of participatory government are broken, the governed have a tendency, a right, an obligation to become unruly.” He continues in the next paragraph, writing “We are possibly in need of some civil unrest.” (p. 274). The essay may tease the reader at first as if to convince the easily-offended that the author’s sole purpose is to deride his opponents, but Keizer surprises with empathy. In his own informal way, Keizer acknowledges that violence communicates an otherwise ignored message. This informal style, a prominent feature of the essay, contributes to the overall jarring tone.
Given that gun control policy is among the most divisive issues in the United States, some might expect a person covering the topic to speak formally. If this is your expectation then Keizer does not deliver. However disappointed, consider that his informal approach aligns with the essay’s purpose: “Loaded” endorses the idea of a balanced government by ensuring citizens have adequate resource, namely resources of defense. For instance, Keizer writes: “When I was a kid, I thought a liberal was a person who couldn’t fix a car. But the cars aren’t so easy to take apart anymore; the ‘check engine’ light comes on and only the dealership has all the codes.” (p. 272). Keizer seems to suggest that modern U.S. society is stripping its citizens of control and it is doing so by design. Technology, he implies, is a double-edged sword. For example, Keizer compares the aiming of a computer cursor to the aiming of a gun, elaborating that “the illusion of power and choice is perpetuated to disguise a diminishing sphere of action.” (p. 272). Thus, his use of informal, conversational style suggests that he has purposefully rejected conforming to the formal, “political correctness” he attributes to an increasingly immobile society.
Keizer also uses humor effectively in this otherwise strong-hold essay. For example, he paints compromise into a real account of an angry-mob situation that ultimately ended with guns drawn. Keizer writes hypothetically of this night on which white supremacists sought the body of executed sharecropper Bennie Montgomery, stating, “With the help of a skilled mediator and a regimen of trust-building exercises, the night riders might have been persuaded to settle for a limb or a chunk of Bennie’s torso…” (p. 268). Keizer’s point is that mediation without force would likely not have ended in the ideal fashion that we would rather believe it would. Such an example illustrates the tongue-in-cheek tone of “Loaded” which, for the most part, works.
Keizer, Garret. “Loaded.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 267-274. Print.
Patricia Smith pieces together a beautiful essay that depicts the socioeconomic attributes of the American dream. “Pearl, Upward” focuses on the author’s mother, Annie Pearl—a woman of color native to rural Alabama—and endeavors to re-create Annie Pearl’s northern migration to a trademark mid-western metropolis, Chicago. Effectively succinct, the essay embodies the bread-and-butter of storytelling, the universally recited adage “show, don’t tell.” Smith uses notably unique descriptions throughout, with subtle implications about race and “the Great Migration” offering a greater sense of purpose to an otherwise private expedition.
The title opens the piece with a literal and figurative notion that we understand the further we read: Annie Pearl relocates to the north, a direction many people visualize as “upward,” and by moving she tries to elevate her social status by climbing “up” the opportunity ladder. In other words, the title has a double meaning which adds a synchronous, arguably poetic element to the essay.
Ultimately, Smith succeeds in telling a heavily told tale—big-fish-in-a-small-pond stories are numerous—in a unique way thanks largely to word choice and fresh description. Many examples illustrate this. For instance, the second paragraph begins, “[Annie Pearl] wants to find a factory where she can work boredom into her fingers.” (p. 218). Compare that to a less creative sentence carrying the same message, such as, “She looks for factory work while unemployed.” Both convey Annie Pearl’s employment situation, yet the first offers more incentive for the reader to pay attention. In the next paragraph, Smith reveals her mother’s wardrobe, specifically describing “a homemade skirt that wrestles with her curves.” (p. 218). Applying the same treatment to this sentence, we could say something like, “Annie Pearl’s dress is skin-tight” and provide the reader with a similar visual. The problem with the latter is that it fails to stimulate the reader the same way as the original sentence. In an additional example, Smith reveals that her mother, having secured a factory job as planned, finds the factory routine to be mindless and boring. Rather than literally and blandly saying so, Smith instead remarks: “In the daytime, she works in a straight line with other women, her hands moving without her. Repeat. Repeat.” (p. 218). These examples support the idea that it’s not what you say but how you say it.
Contrast is a powerful element throughout this essay. In the beginning of the essay, Smith imagines her mother’s mindset during the bus ride from Alabama to Illinois. Writes Smith, “[Annie Pearl] tries not to see the brown folks—the whipcloth shoe shiners, the bag carriers—staring at her…” (p. 218). Although she doesn’t explicitly describe Caucasians in this example, the essay nears its conclusion with a powerful, racially-focused sentiment designed to contrast: “…[Annie Pearl] must claim her place in the north with a child touting her blood. Hot at the thought of creation, she is driven by that American dream of birthing a colorless colored child with no memories whatsoever of the Delta.” (p. 221). Again, this gives a greater sense of meaning to the essay, providing more to the reader than merely a piece of private reflection.
Contrast beckons further as Smith examines her mother as a child versus an adult. In childhood, Annie Pearl walked barefoot while “stones asked her to limp and she didn’t.” (p. 219). Smith later alludes to her mother’s sense of awareness during and following puberty, remarking that “stones asked her to limp and she did.” (p. 220). This subtle comparison, connected by wording, completes the piece as we digest Annie Pearl Smith’s—once Annie Pearl Connor—plight to leave behind a damned south in search of opportunity.
Smith, Patricia. “Pearl, Upward.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 217-221. Print.
“The Lesbian Bride’s Handbook,” a personal essay written by Ariel Levy, lives up to its eccentric title as Levy’s playful narrative ushers the reader through a light-hearted excursion of the lesbian wedding-planning variety. Unlike subjects that our society has secured as harmonious—such as heterosexual nuptials, in contrast—controversial subjects require more delicacy, more subtlety. That is, they require such things if an author intends to engage a versatile audience with minimal hostility. Throughout the essay, Levy knowingly exercises subtlety by using humor in combination with other literary devices, such as anaphora.
Politics can hardly be eliminated from an essay of which the subject—gay marriage— is deeply rooted in civil policies and customs. To that end, Levy does not try to rid her essay of politics; rather, she says in a literary hush what many others have sought to convey in passionate outbursts. In other words, Levy does touch on societal inequities even though her essay is not explicitly argumentative, and it is this indirect nature that increases the essay’s appeal. One key example of this subtlety occurs almost immediately in the essay when the reader becomes privy to Levy’s initial conflict in naming her wedding: “…I felt compelled to tell the whole truth: ‘Because it’s a gay wedding.’ Or, if I couldn’t quite get those words out of my mouth: ‘Because it’s not a real wedding.’” (p. 176). This ongoing hardship, a conflict between what our society recognizes as legitimate and what the author considers authentic, is then reinforced in the essay by the author’s (humorous) title for the ceremony: “party about love.” Another poignant yet subtle remark occurs further along in the essay when Levy simplifies the ceremony, stating, “We would celebrate with our friends—our families, even.” (p. 177). Our families, even. Clearly, this implies that the families of people who are openly gay or lesbian are not always supportive. This point does not require a more robust or scolding tone to be perceived clearly. By making implicit rather than overbearing assertions about such an impassioned issue, “The Lesbian Bride’s Handbook” remains a personal essay rather than an argumentative, combative essay.
In addition to subtlety in debate, which proves acutely effective, Levy gives additional context to the essay by connecting words or phrases throughout. For example, the author implies that she has gained self-acceptance over time. One abstract piece of evidence of this comes from the repetition of the word “square.” At the beginning of the essay, which also marks the early stages of the wedding planning, Levy remarks that “real weddings were like real jobs: square.” (p. 176). Keeping in mind that the phrase “real wedding” is referring to conventional or socially-acceptable weddings, we can understand that the author is saying that socially-acceptable weddings are “square.” As the essay reads on, we begin to see the author’s anxiety toward her union gradually subside and we get a subtle glimpse of this toward the middle where she employs the word “square” once again, this time in reference to her own wedding. “[The author’s own wedding] was not the first large, square, optional ceremony I’d insisted on having despite my mother’s warnings.” (p. 178). By referring to her own ceremony as “square” the reader might infer that Levy is coming to terms with her wedding, seeing it as more socially acceptable.
Anaphora, the literary device characterized by repeated words at the beginning of related sentences, is also used to add an extra poetic element to the essay. We can find concrete examples of anaphora, including: “Like me, Mrs. Norquist was a journalist before she got married. Like me, she is a chatterbox and a gardener. And like me, she is a clotheshorse.” (p. 180). In this particular example, Levy is solidifying the connection between a series of qualities shared between her and her partner’s mother, a well-rounded touch to an already cohesive essay.
Levy, Ariel. “The Lesbian Bride’s Handbook.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 175-181. Print.
Kitty Burns Florey’s “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” is a creative personal essay that pays homage to sentence diagramming, a grade-school task that Florey recalls as having been “a bit like art, a bit like mathematics.” (p. 152). Heavily-planted similes and metaphors, including an ongoing comparison between sentence diagramming and orderly roadways, work effectively alongside illustrations to design the essay’s lush written landscape. Although my own grade-school curriculum was void of the practice of sentence diagramming, the essay’s landscape evokes genuine interest in the unfamiliar and dated practice of visually charting the parts of speech that, as Florey highlights, we so often take for granted when composing sentences.
It may be fitting to say that “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” is as much an ode to figurative language as it is to sentence structure since Florey employs the former with seemingly great purpose throughout the essay. There are at least eleven similes sown within the piece as well as a handful of metaphors—quite a few for a relatively short essay. In fact, Florey opens with a simile, remarking, “Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss.” (p. 151). Although some similes seem to be present with no relation to the others, still many seem to constitute an overall theme; Florey often compares diagramming sentences with road systems, especially in relation to commuters and dwellings. The first example lends itself in the second paragraph: “I learned [sentence diagramming] in sixth grade from Sister Bernadette. I can still see her: a tiny nun with a sharp pink nose, confidently drawing a dead-straight horizontal line like a highway across the black-board…” (p. 152). She continues with this theme by describing the diagrams as “maplike” and referring to the words within the diagrams as “houses on a road.” Further along, Florey forms a connection between a chaotic diagram and a modest commuting scenario by stating, “A good spatial sense helped [students] arrange things so that the diagram didn’t end up with the words jammed together against the edge of the black-board like commuters in a subway car.” (p. 153).
By using transportation systems as a means of comparison, Florey is subtly creating an analogy that might read as follows: sentence diagrams are to grammar as organized roadways are to transportation. The virtue to either end is organization, though Florey drives home a critical point (no pun intended): Just as an orderly network of highways, interstates, and streets will not teach a commuter how to drive well—after all, that requires an understanding of transportation laws and familiarity with driving—a visual dissection of sentences will not teach a writer how to write effectively. Florey literally states, “Diagramming may have taught us how to write more correctly—and maybe even to think more logically—but I don’t think anyone would claim that it taught us to write well.” (p. 156). Ultimately, the diagram-roadway analogy implicitly presented in the essay adds more credibility to that assertion and provides the reader with an effortless route on which to arrive at that conclusion with the author.
In addition to a series of carefully-thought similes and metaphors, “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” revolutionizes the use of illustrations in the personal essay genre. Of course, personal essays before and since have used visual aids, but the extent to which the evolving diagrams are incorporated into Florey’s essay is not easily duplicated. These diagrams have a dual purpose. First, they familiarize the reader with this increasingly obsolete practice. Second and most striking, their use adds immense creativity to the essay as the concluding sentence refuses to conform to the typical text format and is instead conceived using a diagram. Creativity is among the most prevailing tools in a writer’s arsenal to set his or her work apart from lesser material and Kitty Burns Florey has done just that with “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog.”
Florey, Kitty Burns. “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 151-156. Print.
“A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay” is pointedly satirical, marking a first in Atwan’s seventh edition anthology. Written by Christy Vannoy, the essay is featured online at McSweeney.net, the host site for tongue-in-cheek essays like I’M TRAVELING TO SOME COUNTRY IN THE EAST TO WRITE A MEMOIR ABOUT TRAVELING TO SOME COUNTRY IN THE EAST. Vannoy humorously grabs hold of the personal essay’s tendency to be self-involved and exaggerated, writing facetiously from the perspective of a personal essay competing for approval. Personal Essay also alludes to the ways in which we, as a culture, pacify ourselves using sensationalized misery.
Above all, Vannoy’s use of satire was pivotal to Personal Essay’s effectiveness. She could have written a non-satirical (more traditional) essay highlighting the same points and it would have likely read too dry or distastefully critical. Consider her use of essays, rather than essayists, as subjects. By detailing the essay’s absurd qualities using the essay itself as subject, Vannoy is able to criticize the overall nature of personal essays without casting any direct personal attack on the writers who conceive them. For example, Vannoy writes, “Next up were two Divorce Essays, which came and went, forgettable at best.” (p. 111).We could interpret this sentence alone to mean that topics like divorce, though often emotionally-charged, can be dull compared to other, less common focal points. To convey this same message the author could have taken a different aim, writing something like, “Divorced writers tend to indulge in their failed marriages in desperate efforts to create sensational essays.” Clearly, the latter is off-putting and therefore less effective than Vannoy’s more subtle approach. Subtlety, in fact, is essential to this essay.
Vannoy seems to imply that misfortune is routinely exploited by essayists in the name of sensationalism. The following excerpt from Personal Essay explores this topic: “I’ve developed something of a reputation in the industry for taking meticulous notes on my suffering. It was a lesson learned the hard way after my year in sex slavery was rendered useless from the effects of crank on my long-term memory.” (p. 111). It’s likely that Vannoy is urging us to consider how and why we give attention to past hardships. The author makes her point more apparent by quipping that each essay is hoping to “out-devastate the other” in order to get published. (p. 110). Again, Vannoy is opining that competition is driving exaggerated, perhaps even exploitative essay material. The faux titles strewn throughout Personal Essay further speak to this as well as self-involvement.
The Essay Without Arms, Homosexual Essay, and even A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay are titles Vannoy uses strategically to make a deeper point; each essay title points inward at the author. (Me Talking About Myself, though not an actual name used in this essay, may be a fitting extension to Vannoy’s colorful range of existing titles.) These comical titles are complemented by a loaded sentence in the essay, “[less self-involved essay] persisted on beginning sentences without the personal pronoun I and comparing one thing to another instead of just out-and-out saying what happened.” (p. 112). Even without saying the word “narcissistic” the author is able to convey to the reader, through the techniques described above, that personal essays are sometimes guilty of meaningless self-promotion. Ultimately, Christy Vannoy masterfully illustrates her points about the personal essay, and really, about the essayist, through on-the-mark satire.
Vannoy, Christy. “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 110-113. Print.
Self-loathing and heavy juxtaposition carry the reader eerily through Lauren Slater’s “Tripp Lake,” an essay that calls upon noticeably lengthy sentences and jarring vocabulary to illustrate childhood growing pains. Slater’s frequent centerpiece—her mother, a “severe and brittle woman”—behaves somewhat as an antagonist in the summer camp story (p. 90). It is the author’s relationship with her mother that adds meaning to an otherwise unparticular, albeit anxiety-riddled camp experience. In addition to her maternal relationship, there are at least two other main themes to which Slater refers throughout the essay: mental health and human nature. Skillful formatting and word choice allow the reader to vividly revisit these cornerstones of Slater’s youth.
If I were to write about discovering my anxiety as a child, my sentences would likely mirror Slater’s in this essay. We are thrown abruptly into her anxious childhood experience in the first paragraph: “The camp was called Tripp Lake and it was for girls, or so my parents said, who were especially competitive, girls like me, not yet pubescent, packed with all the power of a life that had yet to really unfold, that brought with it the hard parts, the shames, the sadnesses, none of that yet.” (p. 90). Consider the girth of that sentence. It seems Slater purposefully combines what might otherwise be two or more sentences in order to convey the jittery outbursts of anxiety. She is, in effect, lending us her frame of reference and setting the mood for the piece. Another excerpt embodies this long-sentence structure used to elicit feelings of anxiety: “I thought, I am thinking about my breathing, and if I think too hard about my breathing, which you’re not supposed to think about, I will concentrate on it right away, and I swallowed hard, and then I became aware of all the minute mechanisms that comprise a swallow, and so I felt I couldn’t swallow anymore.” (p. 91). Here again the sentence is wealthy, the author undoubtedly materializing anxiety’s reductio ad absurdum.
Slater designates substantial space to the topics of human competition and inner guilt. She connects these two by way of her mother: Young Slater, who feels as though she is competing with her mother for contentment, is plagued with guilt throughout the essay. Calibrating the competitiveness in camp activities, Slater writes: “You cannot really play lacrosse or soccer unless you are playing against someone, and this againstness requires that you see yourself as separate, with all that that implies.” (p. 91). She then considers the different nature of horseback riding, remarking: “Riding is not about separation. It is not about dominance. The only person you might hurt is you. You are, at long last, without guilt.” She continues, stating that riding is “about relationship and balance, and as [her trainer] taught me how to do these things—walk, trot, canter—a sort of peace settled in me, a working through my mother and me, a way of excelling at no one’s cost.” (p. 95). At no one’s cost. Clearly, the essayist is haunted by the jealousy she perceives her mother to have of her. She makes clear her childhood belief that her own happiness works inversely to her mother’s.
Toward the end of the essay, the reader may notice a sudden, almost unnatural shift in tenses. Slater highlights the wisdom of her horseback trainer, Kim, and the effects her wisdom have had in adulthood. First, she quotes Kim who compares her to a girl who “spent her whole life going from hospital to hospital because she loved being sick.” In the next line, Slater pays homage to Kim’s words, stating, “I have thought of her words often—a premonition, an augury, a warning, a simply perception.” (p. 97). Yet again, just below that, she continues with the memory of horseback riding at Tripp Lake, as if the memory itself had been told uninterrupted, as if to tell the reader to adhere to Kim’s warning. Pay attention, she implicitly urges.
Slater, Lauren. “Tripp Lake.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 89-98. Print.
Are humans, self-involved creatures that we are, compelled to relate to others? Perhaps another way of asking this might be: Do we tend to reach for familiarity in others in order to reassure ourselves that we are, alas, similar? Reading Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Blue Machinery of Summer,” a captivating essay that evokes questions about social class, higher education, attraction, and the Vietnam War, I fell into my usual routine of comparing my life to that of the author. Of course, his autobiography would read very differently from my own but I could make a case for comparison that might be reasonably justified. Komunyakaa’s socio-economic plight, no matter how many decades before mine, boasts a song I’ve sung since financial lack stole away my carefree demeanor. Yet before I explain our shared battle hymn, I should convey what striking features of the essay churn in my mind.
For reasons soon to be shared, I became immediately attracted to Komunyakaa’s recount of his industrial summer job. An essayist may lose the reader if he or she loses credibility, but I can say with conviction that Komunyakaa proved himself credible. As the daughter of a factory worker, I can attest I’ve heard these same stories about the assembly line from my father. For example, a revisited subject in “The Blue Machinery of Summer” is work mortality. Referred to as beasts, the machines are recalled as having “reminded everyone within earshot of terrifying and sobering accidents.” (p. 75). A vivid memory offers itself to me as I read that sentence.
Years ago I visited my dad’s factory as part of a “family day” event hosted by his company. The assembly machines were shut down for the day and family members were invited to walk the plant alongside employees. Instinctively, my dad repeatedly put his arm out in front of my tiny body, creating a protective barrier between me and the machines. Although the machines actually posed no threat on family day, horrific work casualties have been so deeply imprinted in my father’s memory that he’s adopted factory-specific defensive traits.
Komunyakaa’s experiences in blue collar America present more than simply common ground between factory workers. The questions he raises about higher education and financially humble backgrounds are complemented by a well-employed Voltaire quote. It begins, “All the poor are not unhappy. The greater number are born in that state, and constant labor prevents them from too sensibly feeling their situation; but when they do they strongly feel it…” (p. 77). I think about this quote and then I think about the variety of lessons I’ve learned by way of higher education. As a third year student, I’ve discovered that higher education brings awareness to students’ lives, exposing us to questions that are often intimidating; frightening. One of these common but rather frightening questions can be found near the essay’s conclusion, as the author asks, “Did education mean moving from one class to the next? My grandmothers told me again and again that one could scale a mountain with a good education. But could I still talk to them, to my parents, my siblings? I would try to live in two worlds—at the very least.” (p. 80).
As the daughter of a 23-year assembly line veteran and a diligent custodian, I’m aware that my background is deeply embedded in lower-class America. I have become an exception in my family—an exception so far as education and career opportunities are concerned—and, just as Voltaire promised, I have come to feel my family’s struggle with great intensity. My parents are kept so occupied by bills and industrious work that their financial pangs go largely without notice. In other words, they have grown so accustomed to economic disparities that they are no longer easily separated from them. As I work toward my bachelor’s degree and fulfill my role at a white collar job, obeying the ever-present societal orders to pull myself up by my boot straps, I feel myself occupying two different worlds: one, a place where a glass ceiling is ever-present, and the other where I am ever-capable. I believe this is the kind of paradox Yusef Komunyakaa commemorates with “The Blue Machinery of Summer.”
Komunyakaa, Yusef. “The Blue Machinery of Summer.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 72-80. Print.
Reading Anwar Accawi’s The Telephone, I wondered if someone without my emphatic loyalty to feminism would trace the patterns of gender inequity throughout the essay. Or, more likely, would these patterns be overshadowed, undermined, and forgotten? The Telephone descends into rural Lebanon’s technological breakthrough—or perhaps more appropriately, subjugation—in the mid-twentieth century. Yet Accawi reveals more about his former culture in the village of Magdaluna than the pitfalls of technology alone, exposing great differences between the lives of village men and village women. These differences stand out more to me than do all other aspects of Magdaluna’s cultural climate.
Accawi recalls that native women “wrung their hands and complained to one another about their men’s unfaithfulness, but secretly they were relieved, because [the mistress] took some of the pressure off them and kept the men out of their hair while [the village women] attended to their endless chores.” Quite the opposite, the village men are remembered as being “exhausted from having so little to do.” In another example, the author candidly recalls a drought from his childhood and fixates on the oft made journey retrieving spring water. These lengthy excursions were endured exclusively by village mothers, young and old, while fathers stayed behind to nap.
Clearly, this essay is not limited to its main topic, proving itself unafraid to pull the reader into unexpected, somewhat discomforting subtopics. My attention was drawn as much to these gender-fueled differences as it was to the effects of technology on an archaic society. Another passage focuses on the author’s interactions with the village husbands: “…I used to hang around [the mistress]’s courtyard […] waiting for some man to call down from a window and ask me to run to the store for cigarettes or arrack, or to deliver a message to his wife, such as what he wanted for supper.”1 Deliver a message to his wife, such as what he wanted for supper. This is harmless by itself, but when you consider the context in full there seems to be a level of unfairness for the women. Recall that these women primarily tend to chores without assistance from their husbands. Now add that their husbands are making requests for them while in the company of the village mistress and you have the making of spousal imbalance in 21st century United States. Even as I note that this essay dates back several decades in a nation roughly eight time zones away from my own, I still want to protest this domestic arrangement in spite of the normalcy with which the author writes about it. Then again, I think about my own ideals of normalcy and realize it’s as subjective a concept as they come.
Accawi’s childhood notions of normality feature strong examples of gender roles. My objection addresses the vastly different expectations of men and women a la 1950s Magdaluna, Lebanon. However, I look at my own culture’s status quo and feel humbled. The practices and policies embedded in my daily life are hardly less divisive than those showcased in this essay. Some sixty years later and my city isn’t fretting over its first telephone. Instead, we’re mechanically awaiting the newest Smartphones to replace the ones we already have. Our televisions are getting thinner, lighter. Wristband watches are no longer restricted to telling time. Moreover, vehicle manufacturers are getting remarkably close to giving us a real life version of Knight Rider’s artificially intelligent Trans Am. We can rightfully consider ourselves more technologically advanced than almost every other nation, certainly more advanced than Accawi’s native setting. And yet even with such modern progress we continue to see signs of gender inequality in our nation. We watch commercials on our High-Def TVs that feature Hannah Davis selling DirecTV in a bikini. Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey looks well-refined endorsing the 2015 Lincoln MKC in business attire. Perhaps, dare I say, we may not be as “advanced” as we fancy ourselves.
Accawi, Anwar F. “The Telephone.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 40-44. Print.